Wright speaks out on administrating and politics

by Dax Tejera | 10/22/03 5:00am

Though it is counter-intuitive, it is an essential part of the job description. College administrators are extraordinarily cautious to avoid the appearance of bias, especially partisanship, in their decision-making.

In interviews, senior administrators explained how important credibility and impartiality are for commanding the authority and respect necessary to be effective.

Administrators maintain that political biases do not exist in the College's administration, and that in any case, certainly no such biases play a role in the decisions made by the College. And while critics may charge that the administration is systemically biased, there is no marked evidence to support this theory.

President of the College James Wright said that he must be constantly vigilant that he does not express partisanship whenever he is acting in an official capacity. "You learn to be careful," Wright said.

According to Wright, he has never nor does he ever intend on using the prominence of his office to any political advantage.

Because of the visibility of Wright's office, "being careful" applies to almost any decision he makes as president.

Wright provided an example to demonstrate his constant concern: "If a presidential candidate is on campus, I'll certainly be courteous and extend a warm welcome. But I cannot and will not go any further. I could never shake his hand for a photo-op or publicly endorse any of his views. I have to know where to draw the line."

According to senior administrators, the vast majority of issues which have had any public prominence are issues so particular to higher education that it is exceedingly difficult to cast them in a partisan light.

Most recently, however, colleges around the nation, including Dartmouth, found themselves addressing publicly the legal controversies surrounding affirmative action.

In an unusual move, Wright spoke out on affirmative action when the Supreme Court heard two cases involving the University of Michigan. The President openly supported affirmative action, a decision he made "without hesitancy."

The decision, he contended, was not based on partisanship but rather a belief that colleges have a responsibility to seek to assemble student bodies with diverse backgrounds.

Wright considers affirmative action an essential issue for any college, and said that he made the decision to speak out in his capacity as president of the College seeking to protect the interests of the institution.

When it comes to matters that do not have direct implications on the institution, Wright has "the utmost faith" in his colleagues to know what is and is not appropriate to discuss openly.

Wright acknowledged that as citizens, administrators are hard pressed to separate their personal views with that which is appropriate to discuss when acting in their administrative capacity.

At the same time, Wright expressed no concern that his staff is anything but politically neutral; he felt quite secure that they are able to distinguish between their personal inclinations and the demands of their work.

Seldom will a college ever jeopardize its reputation by submitting itself to politics or partisanship, Wright said. Within the Dartmouth administration, Wright's colleagues concur that there is never political or partisan divide.

In an interview, Provost Barry Scherr said that he values free speech and the openness of opinion, but in regard to dealings within the administration, "It's generally important to stay free of partisan politics."

Scherr believes that within the Dartmouth administration, the interests of the college always triumph over personal partisanship.

When asked about President Wright's stance in the Michigan admissions case, Scherr said, "I thought that was the case when a college has the right and is justified in speaking out -- I would have."

Dean of the College James Larimore agreed that senior administrators within the college are careful not to reveal partisanship or biases. "The senior staff engages in a good, thoughtful discussion of all issues. At best, it can be an animated exchange with disagreement and an exploration of alternative views."

Larimore contended that often times the issues with which the administration grapples have no clear-cut solutions, nor do the solutions they discuss have partisan labels. "Most often, we find ourselves making policy decisions amongst a choice of competing goods," he said.

He further expressed a general weariness with partisan labels. "What we miss in public debate is that the world is more complicated," he said.

According to Larimore, discussions among administrators that warrant themselves to an ideological bias are not argued on the lines of partisan politics, but on what is in the best interest of the institution.

Larimore admitted that while institutional decisions can differ from administrators' personal ideological views, personal beliefs and what is best for the College are wholly independent thought processes.

Wright and Scherr concurred with Larimore that college institutions "need to be careful about direct engagement on political matters."